Joe Biden launches defence of his pick for Pentagon chief

US law usually requires services members to be retired for a minimum of seven years before heading up the Defense Department 

Seung Min Kim,Dan Lamothe
Thursday 10 December 2020 11:23
<p>Mr Biden said the retired former head of US Central Command was uniquely qualified &nbsp;</p>

Mr Biden said the retired former head of US Central Command was uniquely qualified  

President-elect Joe Biden, introducing his pick for defense secretary, launched Wednesday into what could be a tough, weeks-long sales pitch to persuade members of both parties that retired Gen. Lloyd Austin III is the right choice despite the long-standing principle of civilian leadership at the Pentagon.

"I fully understand and respect" the law requiring service members to be retired for at least seven years before heading the Defense Department, Mr Biden said. But Mr Austin, the retired former head of US Central Command, was uniquely qualified and deserved the once-in-a-generation exception, Mr Biden said.

"I would not be asking for this exception if I did not believe this moment in our history didn't call for it," Mr Biden said. "It does call for it."

But many lawmakers worry that the last time such an exemption was granted was not a generation ago - it was four years ago, when Democrats expressed deep discomfort at approving such a waiver for retired Gen. Jim Mattis, President Donald Trump's first defense secretary. Some vowed at the time never to support such a waiver again.

Those concerns were percolating Wednesday even among some of Mr Biden's most ardent allies in the Senate, raising questions about how much the president-elect had consulted with key figures on Capitol Hill about one of his most consequential nominees.

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, received a heads up on the pending nomination, according to two people familiar with the conversation, although one described the advance notice as perfunctory rather than a full-fledged consultation. A transition official said the Biden team was continuing to talk with Mr Reed.

Meanwhile, aides to at least four other Democrats on the Armed Services Committee said the senators were given no formal advance notice about Mr Austin's selection, even though it will require Congress to approve for the second time in four years a waiver to a post-World War II era law meant to ensure civilian control of the military.

That left some Senate Democrats who have fiercely advocated for civilian control of the military struggling to explain a tangled position: They will vote against the waiver allowing Mr Austin to serve - but if the waiver passes, they will vote for his actual confirmation.

"I will support General Austin, but I will not support the waiver," Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., said Wednesday during an interview on MSNBC. Pressed on how Mr Austin could become secretary of defence without a waiver, Ms Duckworth said she believed Congress would approve one.

Ms Duckworth, an Iraq War veteran and Purple Heart recipient, stressed that she believes "very strongly that there needs to be civilian control, civilian oversight, of the military," but added that Mr Austin is an "excellent officer" and said she had even offered him help to navigate the confirmation process.

In introducing Mr Austin at the Queen theatre on Wednesday, Mr Biden tried to draw a line between Mr Austin's former role and the one he may assume, referring to him as a "diplomat" and as "secretary-designee" rather than as a general.

Mr Biden also said he had watched Mr Austin "faithfully carry out the orders of the civilian leadership of this nation," possibly referring to his own frustration when some in the Pentagon pressured the Obama administration for more aggressive military action.

Mr Austin is African American, a fact with strong resonance for many at a time when the country is grappling with racial justice in a variety of ways. President Harry Truman formally desegregated the US military in 1948, but it took years for that edict to become a reality.

Mr Biden cast the nomination of Mr Austin as right for the moment, but he left out a key difference between his nomination and that of Mr Mattis four years ago: Mr Biden has many more choices than Mr Trump did. By the time Mr Trump was elected, many candidates had removed themselves from consideration by openly criticising him.

At Wednesday's event introducing Mr Austin, he stepped to the podium in a suit and tie and highlighted past Black history-makers in the military, including Henry O. Flipper, who was born into slavery and became the first African American to graduate from the US Military Academy. Mr Austin and Mr Biden already have worked together in "some intense and high-pressure situations," he said.

"You can expect, as secretary of defence, that I will give you the same direct, unvarnished counsel as I did back then," Mr Austin said. "I understand the important role the department plays in maintaining stability, deterring aggression, and defending and supporting critical alliances around the world, including in the Asia Pacific, in Europe, and around the world."

Mr Austin, known as an intensely private man, added that he plans to surround himself with "experienced, capable civilian appointees and career civil servants who will enable healthy civil-military relations grounded in meaningful civilian oversight."

Nonetheless, several Senate Democrats were taken aback by the Austin nomination, considering Mr Reed's adamant comments in 2017 that he would not support a waiver for future Pentagon nominees after approving one for Mr Mattis.

Still, some Democratic senators who opposed waiving the law for Mr Mattis in 2017 did not rule out reversing their stance for Mr Austin, pending future conversations with the nominee.

"As you know from my past record, I'm very, very concerned about not having civilian control of the military, which I will weigh heavily in my analysis, but I look forward to meeting him," said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., a senior member of the Armed Services Committee.

Mr Austin must act as a civilian appointee 

Ms Gillibrand, the sole senator in 2017 to oppose both the waiver for Mr Mattis and the confirmation itself, added, "I know my view is that civilian control of the military is part of our constitutional principles."

Other Democratic officials speculated that a waiver - which requires approval by both the House and Senate - would pass with GOP support and that some Republican senators would take the reverse position from Ms Duckworth: They would approve the waiver but oppose Mr Austin's confirmation.

The waiver law was first adopted in 1947 and is meant to ensure that civilians control the military; that generals don't lobby for future roles as politicians behind the scenes; and that the nonpartisan nature of a military that is expected to faithfully serve any president is preserved. Only one waiver has been granted besides Mr Mattis's, for retired Gen. George Marshall in 1950.

For Mr Austin to be effective as a defence secretary, he must speak and act as a civilian political appointee and not as a general, said Lindsay Cohn, a professor who studies civil-military relations at the Naval War College.

"Austin needs to be comfortable engaging with political and policy issues as political issues, not pretend to be an apolitical military officer," Ms Cohn said in an email. "I think he can mitigate the damage to civil-military norms if he avoids using his military status as a shield to protect himself and the president from criticism or the need to make difficult policy choices."

On an individual level, Mr Austin also will face scrutiny about decisions he made as a senior officer and whether he is ready to oversee a job that is global in scope after spending the majority of his career focused almost entirely on the Middle East.

Rep. Mike Gallagher, R.-Wis., a marine veteran who served in Iraq, tweeted that while Mr Austin is "a patriot," he is "not the pick if you believe China is an urgent threat" and that the Pacific "is the priority theatre."

The Biden team has sought to cast Mr Austin as uniquely qualified for the position, citing his role in bringing the Iraq War to a "successful conclusion" in 2011. But that has prompted questions from those who note that the removal of US forces there was followed by the rise of the Islamic State and militants' capture of numerous Iraqi cities in 2014, when Mr Austin was the top US military officer in the region.

After Mr Biden cited the war's conclusion under Mr Austin as one of the reasons for his nomination, retired Gen. Tony Thomas, a former chief of the US Special Operations Command, tweeted that he wants a "little bit of analysis" about that characterisation.

"Did I dream about having to go BACK to Iraq and then the added bonus of Syria 2 years later to defeat ISIS?" Mr Thomas tweeted.

Mr Austin's nomination also has prompted concerns from women who supported former Obama Pentagon official Michele Flournoy as defence secretary. She would have made a different kind of history as the first woman to run the Pentagon.

Mr Austin's selection is historic, and he has an impressive record as a general, said Mieke Eoyang, a senior vice president at the Third Way think tank. But there is still some "head-scratching" as to why Ms Flournoy was bypassed, considering her reputation as a respected official who could have handled the job, she said.

Ms Eoyang noted that while the Biden team has cited Mr Austin's record in combat to explain his selection, women have been excluded from many related jobs, such as infantryman, until recently.

She recommended that if Mr Austin is confirmed, he should solicit feedback from women and assess where his blind spots may be, especially as the army copes with an unfolding scandal at Fort Hood, Texas, which includes the murder of a female soldier, Spec. Vanessa Guillen, and the firing of numerous army leaders on Tuesday for overlooking sexual harassment and assaults.

"It takes effort to see the structural assumptions that are baked in that are discriminatory," Ms Eoyang said. "You see all kinds of people studying how to be anti-racist. But we also have a culture in the military that is built around maleness and masculinity."

The Washington Post

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